CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2015

“The Sorcerers” (1967)

"The Sorcerers" poster

 

1967’s The Sorcerers captured cinema’s terror torch being passed on to a new generation of fear merchants. It came out when the burgeoning independent horror scene saw works by such upstart filmmakers as George A. Romeo and Herschell Gordon Lewis sharing screen space with the latest from Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. These pictures were bloodier, sexier, and skeezier than their high-profile competition — and, being made so cheaply, many were every bit as profitable. The Sorcerers belonged to this crowd, and as part of its plan to thrill an increasingly cynical movie-going public, it sought to liven up one of the genre’s most far-fetched hooks with a psychedelic charge. While not without its stumbles, the flick accomplished what it set out to, maintaining a consistently unnerving tone and getting viewers to buy into its premise enough to fear the story’s intended parties. The Sorcerers has a keen sense of how crazy and nasty to get in pursuit of pleasing its audience, doing what it does without becoming irredeemably silly or unpleasant.

After decades of toiling away in his humble apartment, Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) has completed his life’s work. A medical hypnotist eeking out the most pathetic of existences, the good doctor is ready to take his trade to the next level with an apparatus of his own invention. Upon testing it out on bored lothario Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), Marcus and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) are not only able to control the lad but also feel every one of his sensations. However, while the professor envisions using his machine to benefit mankind, his beloved allows this newfound power to go instantly to her head. Years of living in near-poverty have left Estelle an embittered shell of her former self, and now that she has a pawn in her thrall, she’s ready to make all her unfulfilled desires come true. But as forcing Mike to commit simple robberies quickly evolves into murder, Marcus finds it harder to counter Estelle’s influence, with each passing moment further robbing him of the chance of ever stopping her rampage.

The Sorcerers inadvertently gave us two horror figures in their twilight years. Not only would Karloff pass away two years after production ended, but so did director Michael Reeves, who died at the tragically young age of 25. He only made a few features in his short career (the best-known being 1968’s Witchfinder General), but he’s still firmly established a knack for crafting an unsettling atmosphere out of precious few resources. The Sorcerers must have proved a particular challenge, what with the tired hypnosis conceit, yet while the movie’s sailing isn’t wholly smooth, Reeves gives the premise a good deal of credibility. With equal parts conviction and whacked-out imagery, he coaxes the most skeptical among us to climb aboard and stick by to see where the story goes next. It isn’t just a matter of Marcus staring at Mike and sternly issuing orders; the hypnosis sequence sees the young man bombarded with all manner of flickering lights and crazy color patterns that swiftly turn his brain into Nickelodeon Gak. One can imagine this scene coming off as goofy in a more condescending production, but because Reeves takes the fantastic seriously enough, so do we. It also neatly ties into the professor’s own journey, achieving the impossible in a veritable broom closet after being scoffed at for ages.

Karloff excels at making Marcus a sad, highly sympathetic figure, so it falls upon Lacey to serve as the main antagonizing force of The Sorcerers. She too is a wonder to behold, selling Estelle’s scornful attitude towards the world at large and giving into the character’s evil impulses without ever feeling like she’s overacting. Estelle begins the movie as a sweet old lady and becomes a dominating persona taunting her weak-willed husband, but while Lacey’s acting is terrific and all, the arc itself feels rather rushed. Her contempt for society comes out of nowhere, and while part of the change can be chalked up to the new power and sensations she’s experiencing for the first time, that she so quickly develops a bloodlust and loses all reason is difficult to swallow. The Sorcerers also has a strange habit of taking one-scene comedic detours with all manner of eccentric characters (from a pushy deli clerk to an uppity customer Mike encounters on the job) that serve no real purpose and just plain aren’t all that funny. Still, these instances aren’t many, and Reeves ensures that we remain invested in the narrative whenever we’re away from Marcus and Estelle’s battle of wills. Ogilvy has a firm handle on his role, avoiding the temptation to skulk around like a mindless zombie and make the effort to naturally incorporate the Monserrats’ instructions into his everyday behavior.

Low-key and dingy by design, The Sorcerers fleshes out its concepts to a degree that at the very least keeps you watching until the end. The actors aren’t eye-rolling their way through the plot, tension feels genuine, and with the premise taking us to so many convincingly cruddy locales in which the unknown thrives, the line between fantasy and reality undergoes a nice blurring. A seldom-seen slice of swingin’ ’60s cinema, The Sorcerers provides an intriguingly offbeat genre diversion.

(The Sorcerers is available from the Warner Archive Collection.)

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“The Strange Door” (1951)

"The Strange Door" poster

 

1951’s The Strange Door hails from a rarely-recounted chapter of Universal Horror. Released alongside the studio’s well-documented monster movies were titles like The Black Castle and Tower of London, period pieces that drew from historical events and even classic literature to offer a different sort of thrill. These films didn’t possess the marketable creatures of their more popular brothers, and they didn’t always properly utilize the classic horror stars upon whose backs Universal crafted its frightful reputation. Still, such works retained their suspense all the same and featured better-than-average production value, inspiring Roger Corman to be a bit more extravagant with his own Poe adaptations in the ’60s. The Strange Door (based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson) is in the same boat, placing greater emphasis on elements of romance and costume drama than of blood-curdling terror, though it remains a perfectly gripping experience through and through. Not only does the film use its medieval setting to its atmospheric advantage, it also serves up a pair of sympathetic leads and a series of ordeals both physical and psychological that we’re actively rooting for them to escape.

By all appearances, Denis (Richard Stapley) is a consummate scoundrel. At any given time, he can be found at the bottom of a bottle, picking fights and flirting with tavern wenches if he isn’t passed out drunk. In other words, he’s the ideal candidate for a devious plot that the Sire de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) has been cooking up for two decades. As payback for stealing the woman he loved, Maletroit has imprisoned his brother (Paul Cavanagh) and assumed guardianship of his niece, Blanche (Sally Forrest). For the final step in his plan, this deranged nobleman aims to ruin Blanche’s life by marrying her off to the most loathsome rogue he can find — which is where Denis comes in. But unbeknownst to the Sire, the lad is a fairly upstanding fellow once he sobers up, as he soon warms up to his bride-to-be and goes about helping her find a means of fleeing her uncle’s house of horrors. However, with only the help of loyal servant Voltan (Boris Karloff) to depend upon, this is easier said than done, as Maletroit has invested too much into seeing his scheme come to fruition for a couple of lovestruck kids to bring the whole thing crashing down.

For a Universal Horror nut like myself, watching The Strange Door is fairly bittersweet. As with other production houses of the era, the studio’s swelling science fiction slate took over the monster trade, with special effects wizardry supplanting iconic actors as the new genre draw. This development saw the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. unflatteringly cast in hokey horror shows, and while Karloff exhibits as much effort as he can under the circumstances, the thankless role that The Strange Door saddles him with is a waste of his talent. Romance is the undisputed center of attention this time around, so fright fans needn’t expect very many Middle Age torture devices and whatnot cluttering the set. On the other hand, this means that an aspect of the story that more maliciously-minded movies would begrudgingly include for posterity gets promoted to the forefront. The relationship between Denis and Blanche isn’t as muted as such a plot thread usually would be in horror flicks, with the characters allowed to make a connection that’s integrated into the narrative, rather than be around just so teenagers can have some down time to neck during. While part of me would love to have seen Karloff have more to do, it’s an acceptable sacrifice, if the focus is instead trained on better acquainting the viewer with leads whom they actually want to survive through to the final credits.

But The Strange Door‘s greatest coup is in casting such an immensely charismatic performer as the baddie, we couldn’t care less about the absence of some creature that can have the hell merchandised out of it. Laughton’s excursions into horror were few (his most notable being 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), but when he made the trip, you could count on it being a memorable occasion. His performance as Maletroit here is no exception, as the man pitches in as gleefully evil of a turn as one could hope for. He oozes sliminess and contempt out of every pore, bringing the character to life with a potent blend of menace, dark comedy, and just the slightest glimpse at the human he once was before all those years of conniving did a number on him. The Sire comes across as just the sort of threat the story needed, and while Stapley and Forrest’s acting can’t help but feel a touch vanilla in comparison, you really do feel for Blanche and Denis as they work to get out of their plight. The supporting cast is rounded out by such faces as Cavanagh (whose character feigns insanity in order to survive the Sire’s wrath), William Cottrell as one of Maletroit’s servants, and Alan Napier as a man from Denis’ past recruited to save the young lovers. Also, while the movie’s production design isn’t precisely lavish, it’s far from cheap and suits just fine in supplying Laughton’s antagonist with a claustrophobic domain.

It’s understandable if someone feels let down by The Strange Door, but it’s nowhere near as disposable as you might assume. While certain elements of the film may not work as well as they have before in similar stories, others are glad to pick up the slack, resulting in a vehicle that aims to satisfy audiences one way or another. Its edge may not be as diabolical as particular tastes wish it to be, but The Strange Door nevertheless pulls through as an appealingly ominous little ditty.

 

“Frankenstein 1970” (1958)

"Frankenstein 1970" poster

 

Unless they’re properly spruced up time and again, what scares us in movies tends to have a pretty finite shelf life. A little awe is lost with each generation, which ridicules, parodies, and grows accustomed to that which creeped out the crowds before them. Getting left in the dust is awfully easy, which 1958’s Frankenstein 1970 knows all too well. The film was only released a year after Hammer Films successfully reinvigorated the maddest of all cinematic scientists, yet it looks like something that would’ve been seen as as outdated two decades earlier. One almost wants to let it pass as a winking satire poking fun at the poor esteem in which jaded audiences hold vintage monster movies, but its wit and substance are in much too slim supply for this to fly. Nope, Frankenstein 1970‘s greatest flaw is that it wants to return one of classic horror’s greatest legacies to its spine-tingling roots, only without ponying up the kind of content that lets us know it means business.

A new evil has taken root in the heart of Germany. This is a most powerful force, one notorious for its greed, influence, and complete lack of shame. Its name: Hollywood. The 230th anniversary of the first time a Frankenstein attempted to create life is fast approaching, and to capitalize on the occasion, a motley crew of showbiz types has set up shop in the family castle to film a television special. Reluctantly helping the production out is Baron Victor (Boris Karloff), whose great-great grandfather was the one who played God all those centuries ago and forever etched his surname in the history books. Holding nothing but contempt for those making a mockery of his clan, the Baron is nevertheless glad to take their money and get to work picking up where his ghoulish ancestors left off. Victor is eager to do his bloodline proud and conjure up a creature of his own invention…with a spare part or two donated by the cast and crew cavorting about his humble abode. By the time the survivors figure out that fishy matters are afoot, it may be too late, for nothing will stop the Baron from doing justice to his family and siccing an unspeakable scourge upon the world.

I’m not one for letting nitpicks get the best of me, but when they dogpile you as swiftly and forcefully as Frankenstein 1970‘s nagging flaws do, getting annoyed and overwhelmed is all but guaranteed. Firstly, to say that the film’s premise is muddled is like saying Igor has something of a skin blemish. Though the concept of the Frankenstein family’s unholy activities being based in reality is a fine hook, it’s dressed up with so many futile little touches that there’s nothing about the product as a whole that grips you. Why give the movie a “futuristic” title when nothing about it seems advanced beyond the decade in which it was made? Why ignore the Mary Shelley novel and all other forms of Frankenstein media so that this flick’s monster mania can be attributed to a single made-up character? And if the Frankensteins are real in this universe, why is everyone so keen on celebrating their grave-robbing, corpse-defiling, God’s domain-meddling legacy? Normally, go-nowhere flourishes such as these would be endearingly kooky, but one gets the impression from the film’s underlying cynicism that its own creators couldn’t have cared less. Whereas the best bad movies are that way because the powers that be had some kind of faith or drive, this one blows its chance at being memorable (if not genuinely good) by refusing to embrace the potential for ironic humor and thrills staring it in the face.

Frankenstein 1970 aspires to somewhat loftier goals than we’re used to from B-horror jaunts, but it doesn’t want to put in the work necessary to getting there. As a showbiz satire, the film is a bust, for all the wit the script imparts amounts to a couple tired jabs at how vain and inconsiderate Hollywood types can be. Because the production value is so low-rent (with even the Baron’s high-tech atomic reactor seemingly ripped straight from Colin Clive’s laboratory), it also fails considerably in paying respects to the Frankenstein property and filling it with a frightening new charge. The movie can’t settle on just how seriously to take itself, so it idly shuffles back and forth from tone to indifferent tone; we get plenty of voids where we’re pretty sure gags should be, and the audience hasn’t any other option but to chuckle at the many cheap excuses for suspense offered up onscreen. With so many of the actors left to fritter their time away in uninteresting, one-dimensional roles, it really falls on Karloff’s shoulders to carry Frankenstein 1970, although he puts up quite the admirable effort. He’s sinister, sneering, and given to delivering grandiose monologues about carrying on the work of his forefathers like the consummate professional he really was. Unfortunately, Karloff’s moments in the sun are few and far between, with agonizingly long chunks of screen time dedicated to showing him tinkering with lab equipment and fawning over a bulky, bandaged monster that, quite frankly, looks like a joke.

Because of Karloff’s powerhouse performance, I let Frankenstein 1970 slide the first time I caught it, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t hold up in the slightest. While its corniness isn’t totally lacking in entertainment value, the film damages one of horror’s most classic dynasties more than it gives it the good press it could’ve used at the time. Frankenstein 1970 claims to be a fitting successor to its titular cinematic bloodline, but it’s little more than a condescending impostor, shoving a cut-rate monster mash into our laps and having the gall to expect us to be perched on the edge of our seats for the whole ride.

 

“Bedlam” (1946)

"Bedlam" poster

 

1946’s Bedlam ended a brief but fruitful period in the history of horror. It was the last in a series of stylish genre pictures from RKO, who gave producer Val Lewton small budgets but carte blanche to shepherd whatever creepfests he wished from the titles given to him. Each of the nine films that came of this collaboration were unique in content and presentation, and Bedlam was no exception. But rather than concentrate on the supernatural, this Mark Robson-directed work found inspiration with man’s own capacity for cruelty, focusing specifically on those with arcane attitudes towards treating the mentally unsound. This story sidesteps using the world of the mad as fodder for cheap thrills (for the most part), instead using its time to criticize figures who turn a blind eye to the less fortunate — as well as over-zealous do-gooders who don’t really know what they’re getting into. All of this helps Bedlam play out as a film of uncommon complexity, as rich in observational wit as with instances of stark terror.

London, 1761. Though this period was referred to as the “Age of Reason” by some, there’s little of it to be found within the walls of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum — otherwise known as Bedlam. A squalid institution whose inmates are treated as subhuman and left to wallow in their own filth, Bedlam is overseen by Master Sims (Boris Karloff), a most cruel man without a shred of compassion for the mad. He’s even taken to trotting out his charges at parties for the amusement of the upper class, and it’s at once such soiree that feisty young Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) decides that enough is enough. Having tired of spending her days keeping dimwitted nobleman Lord Mortimer (Billy House) company, Nell takes pity upon the asylum’s residents and sets out to improve their conditions. But when it appears that doing so means tarnishing Mortimer’s image, Sims takes it upon himself to silence the girl by committing her to Bedlam. As she gains a better understanding of the poor souls she seeks to help out, she also finds guidance in the form of a Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser), who urges her to call upon the Almighty to preserve her sanity throughout this awful ordeal.

For a story that would be touted as an Oscar contender were it made today, it’s funny that Bedlam was still seen as a B-horror picture way back when. While it’s not wholly sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill (moments of voices cackling from the shadows and arms clawing at characters between iron bars are used for quick jolts a few times), the film’s overall tone is sympathetic. In the end, the lunatics aren’t who we’re meant to fear most but rather Sims, whom Karloff perfectly portrays as every bit the devil he is. Sims is a master of persuasion who speaks eloquently, rarely loses his temper, and uses his way with words to bend numerous people to his will. He’s calculating but never cartoonish, allowing Karloff to instill more dread into one’s heart with a condescending smile than with one of his patented thousand-yard glares. Sims also contributes to Bedlam‘s well-roundedness, as he provokes Nell by bringing up the selfish roots of her good intentions. He’s only speaking the truth when he mentions how clean beds alone won’t clear her conscience and that no matter how committed to reform she remains, she’ll always be prejudiced towards certain inmates. Where lesser movies would view a tale like this in black and white, this one thrives in the grey, creating a consistently tense psychological clash where the most harrowing torture comes not from physical forces but from our own personal demons.

That said, Bedlam still runs into the occasional spot of trouble navigating the tricky narrative waters into which it steered itself. As Nell, Lee brings a great deal of the fire and stubborn obstinance one needs when butting heads with a snake like Sims, but the character’s awakening to the horrors she’d only barely understood before isn’t executed in the smoothest of fashions. Although there’s nothing wrong with starting her off as a mildly-patronizing member of the upper crust and following her transformation to compassionate caregiver, Nell is depicted as either a full-on snob or veritable Mother Teresa. There’s a lot of middle ground here that’s left off the screen, as even after her big moment of accepting even the most supposedly dangerous inmates with open arms, she’s still playing the aloof card with Fraser’s pious handyman. Nevertheless, Lee comes through with an emotional performance, and her battle with Sims is resolved in a satisfyingly macabre fashion (owing much to the work of a particular Mr. Poe). As far as the other cast members go, Karloff again puts on a wily show, House does convincing work as the easily-swayed Mortimer, and while the Quaker isn’t the most riveting character, Fraser displays enough conviction to help his platitudes take off.

As it’s part period costume drama, Bedlam appears to be the odd man out when compared to Val Lewton’s other tales of terror. But it’s just as indicative of the style he cultivated as The Body Snatcher or Cat People, speaking to the human condition and using how we treat our fellow man to frighten us, rather than depend on just another movie monster. While its pace might be a little too methodical for modern tastes, just stick with Bedlam, and you’ll find it to be equal parts unsettling, darkly amusing, and wickedly smart.

 

“The Climax” (1944)

"The Climax" poster

 

As the case usually is with dealers in cinematic dread, Universal Pictures just couldn’t let sleeping monsters lie. When the studio remade the Lon Chaney classic Phantom of the Opera as a Technicolor musical in 1943 to great success, work began almost immediately upon resurrecting the masked crypt-kicker for a sequel. Unfortunately, due to story disputes and central members of the creative team being unavailable, plans for a direct follow-up were scrapped, and the project was retooled to become a stand-alone shocker. This resulted in 1944’s The Climax, which, on paper, sounds like a vintage horror fan’s dream come true. Not only was Boris Karloff recruited to serve as the chief villain, the picture reunited The Wolf Man director George Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Alas, The Climax failed to light up the box office upon its release, and while audiences balked at the lack of scares in comparison to the surplus of song-and-dance performances, it’s a snoozer of a film for a host of other reasons, too.

Vienna lost one of its finest voices when rising opera star Marcellina (June Vincent) vanished without a trace. She disappeared just as her career was taking off in a big way, leaving the world clueless as to her whereabouts. Little does the public know that the horrible answer to this question lies with Marcellina’s physician and lover Dr. Hohner (Karloff), who murdered her for the crime of daring to share her talents with the world. Not only that, but ten years after the incident, it seems as if history is about to repeat itself, for homicidal memories are stirred when Hohner hears young music student Angela Klatt (Susanna Foster) perform. Her pipes strikingly similar to those of Marcellina’s, Hohner resolves to claim them for his ears and no one else’s. The doctor proceeds to put Angela underneath his hypnotic thrall and sabotage her debut as a lead, but luckily, our girl has back-up. Her devoted fiancé Franz (Turhan Bey) senses something fishy from the get-go, taking immediate steps to find out just what’s going on and snap his beloved back to normal before she becomes Hohner’s slave forever.

Despite boasting Phantom star Foster and equally lavish art direction, The Climax just couldn’t replicate the same financial success. Bey himself went on record as saying this was because of Universal shirking the Phantom brand, yet while I’m certain that the absence of the monster’s name in the title didn’t help its receipt, there’s no shortage of other factors contributing to the flick’s overall downfall. For one, the movie’s suspense lacks the grand, theatrical style that’s applied to its sets, costumes, and musical sequences. Anyone hoping to see frights on the scale of crashing chandeliers or gruesome murder sprees are in for a rude awakening, as the best The Climax has to offer is one strangulation and a lot of Hohner casting evil eyes in ingénue Angela’s direction. In the studio’s pursuit of creating a classier horror alternative to something like its cheapie Kharis series, it ends up sanding off nearly all the edges of a story that should be teeming with obsession, passion, and murder in spades. Such little regard is given to the macabre here, Angela falls under Hohner’s spell at their very first meeting; never mind the credibility that hypnosis is already stretching as a plot device, but that the process isn’t allowed to be gradual is a huge missed opportunity to institute an element of mounting fear. As pretty as the movie looks and sounds (even if some of the tunes feel more appropriate for Ziegfeld’s follies than the Vienna stage), it’s all for naught without a remotely haunting atmosphere to balance things out.

The Climax isn’t scary by a long shot, but that’s not everything when it comes to horror, right? Much can be forgiven when the main story and its characters are interesting, but unfortunately, Waggner and company falter in this department, as well. The decision to make Hohner a more explicitly evil entity than Claude Rains’s sympathetic opera ghost has fleeced him of almost all dimension possible. Karloff tries like hell here to give the doctor some depth, using his voice and commanding gaze to help him come across as a victim of the madness that’s gripped him for so long, not to mention a guy who could easily conquer a young woman’s psyche. But in the end, Hohner is just a by-the-numbers villain with a clichéd modus operandi, no less a trope than Jane Farrar’s snooty and inconsequential opera diva. To the film’s credit, though, Foster fares just as well here as she did in Phantom, her voice a stunner and her ability to sell Angela’s daze upon being subconsciously captivated by Hohner a great boon to the production. She and Bey also simply look great standing beside one another, although while the latter’s performance is fine, Waggner pushes Franz’s love for Angela to a comedically aggressive extent, only to elicit more angry sighs than laughs. Appearances by other Universal Horror stalwarts are in short supply, but at the very least, fans can appreciate seeing veteran actress Gale Sondergaard strut her stuff as Hohner’s suspicious housekeeper.

It’s incredibly easy on the eyes, but The Climax does little to grip the imagination. The film overdoses on lovey-dovey qualities and gives but scraps to its spooky side (a shrine to Marcellina’s corpse is about as grisly as it gets), hoping to compensate with visual pizazz and churning out a rather hollow venture in the process. The Climax might be one of the most dapper additions to Universal’s famous horror canon, but it’s also one of the least memorable.

“The Ghoul” (1933)

"The Ghoul" poster

 

The Ghoul belongs to that breed of cinematic bummers made even more disappointing by the incredible stories behind them. This picture was one of several chillers that Boris Karloff appeared in after becoming Universal’s golden boy, with studio after studio lining up to get a piece of the newly-christened master of monsters. But although it was successful in its native United Kingdom, The Ghoul‘s stateside reception was decidedly more muted, sinking so swiftly into obscurity that it was thought of as a lost film for over thirty years. Following an inferior and incomplete print that was discovered in the ’60s, the ’80s yielded the unearthing of a pristine negative, giving Karloff’s fans their long-awaited chance to fill a gap in the man’s body of work that they’d thought would remain empty forever. Part of me salutes those who restored the movie for not giving up the ghost (so to speak), but another side is just barely suppressing smart-ass remarks about how it wasn’t worth the effort. While I was less impatient with The Ghoul during my latest rewatch than with my initial viewing in college, the film is still a pretty flavorless exercise in the macabre, with its deliciously dark pleasures few and its rigid pacing a most persistent pain in the neck.

If it’s Egyptian, Professor Henry Morlant (Karloff) is obsessed with it. What his colleagues and acquaintances dismiss as ancient superstition, he embraces as gospel, seeing those forgotten gods of the sands as the keys to paradise. Sure enough, as Morlant lies upon his deathbed, he looks to a recently-obtained artifact to fill him with life everlasting: the Eternal Light. A jewel rumored to grant those buried with it the gift of immortality, the professor insists on taking it with when he shuffles off this mortal coil…which he does mere minutes after the opening title cards. But particular parties that are more interested in satisfying their own goals than in honoring a dead man’s wishes, as they come out of the woodwork in order to steal the Eternal Light for themselves. From a greedy solicitor (Cedric Hardwicke) to an agent (Harold Huth) who wants to bring the rock back to where it first came from, there’s no shortage of scoundrels who want their hands on the jewel. But there may be more to this immortality business than just a legend, for after the Eternal Light is swiped from his cold grasp, Morlant rises from his tomb to embark on a violent quest to get it back.

The Ghoul has much in common with the “old dark house” mysteries that ruled the horror genre before the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula made it acceptable (and profitable) to explicitly depict the supernatural onscreen. But although it’s fueled by the same fascination with Egyptian culture that led to The Mummy‘s creation one year prior, the added exotic flavor does little to counteract the deluge of woes that the picture inherited from its mother genre. From its impeccably-mannered but indiscernible characters to its numerous misguided stabs at levity, The Ghoul exemplifies almost everything wrong with the sort of thrillers in which a small cast of characters searches for some sort of treasure in a big, spooky mansion. Props aplenty to director T. Hayes Hunter for supplying an appropriately grim abode (packed with sarcophagi, Anubis statues, and other examples of imposing Middle Eastern décor), but when it comes to the poor saps traipsing around inside it, they either don’t stand out or stand out for the wrong reasons. While the movie boasts early appearances by such soon-to-be beloved actors as Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, the majority of them are left with little to do outside of serving as red herrings, with their similar wardrobe and seemingly permanent scowls making a trial out of telling their characters apart. Then there’s the matter of Kathleen Harrison, who continues the shrieking ditz act that was barely tolerable when Una O’Connor used it in The Invisible Man and isn’t any less time-consuming or insufferable here.

With this many strikes against it, one might expect The Ghoul to force its star to go down with the ship, but amazingly, the opposite is true. Karloff’s presence is scarce yet very effective, as he’s less of an active player in the proceedings and more of a shadow looming over the story. Morlant’s conviction in his faith and the terrible fates that he declares will meet those who challenge him are absolute, echoing in the screams and petrified faces of the remaining characters as their night of horror heats up. He only gets to speak in one early scene, but Karloff makes it a doozy, delivering a staggeringly sinister monologue about life after death (and he still rocks the crypt just as a silent stalker). Our boy Boris is also joined by The Bride of Frankenstein‘s Ernest Thesiger, whose butler has much better luck at both doling out witticisms to give the audience a good chuckle and seeming suitably traumatized when his employer appears to have shirked the grave. Also, where vintage mysteries of this ilk would try to incorporate the customary romantic subplot, The Ghoul instead features Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell as Morlant’s last living heirs, thrust into an evening’s worth of strangulations and tomb-raiding that they didn’t plan on. On the one hand, it’s refreshing for a vintage chiller not to try to force any unwarranted lovey-dovey nonsense amidst the shocks, but the pair’s involvement in the story is so downplayed, there’s no real purpose for them hanging around or, for that matter, reason for us to cross our fingers and hope they live through the night.

The Ghoul is admirable from a historical standpoint (it’s said to be England’s first horror film of the sound era) and for making a little Karloff go far, but the presentation is too blah and the rewards too scant to recommend it. If you’re in the market for a similar blend of gallows humor and pre-code frights, productions such as The Bat Whispers, 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, and 1929’s Seven Keys to Baldpate will deliver your fix with fewer hiccups. Lest you be a Karloff completist, The Ghoul is one derelict domicile best left boarded up.

“The Walking Dead” (1936)

"The Walking Dead" poster

 

Few actors can claim to have been typecast as benevolent ghouls raised from the dead against their will, and even less pulled off these roles as perfectly as Boris Karloff. Like the elder and junior Lon Chaneys, Karloff was an early horror superstar who brought depth to the monsters and madmen he portrayed. A magnetic performer to start with, his ability to elicit sympathy for characters who killed or maimed gave the genre some of its most fascinatingly complex creations. But while his acclaim for Frankenstein and The Mummy is beyond deserved, 1936’s The Walking Dead features one of our man’s most soulful and underseen turns. This is a film where dancing around censorship limits turned out for the better, as a much wilder and intense screenplay got whittled down into something more on the suggestively spooky side. What transpires in The Walking Dead is chilling enough, but that such shocking acts come divinely sanctioned helps push it that extra creepy mile.

A wave of terror has struck the city, although the menace isn’t of supernatural origin. It’s a syndicate of gangsters and crooks who’ve infiltrated high society, putting themselves in the position of being able to casually bump off anyone who dares strike a blow against their criminal enterprise. This group’s latest victim is poor John Ellman (Karloff), an ex-convict whom they frame for the murder of a judge. The unwitting pawn goes to the electric chair for the bogus crime, but the Almighty has other plans in store for him. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), Ellman is brought back from the dead and subsequently cleared of all charges. However, he still has some unfinished business with those who set him up, compelled to seek them out without having ever met them. One by one, the lowlifes meet grisly ends, as Ellman is guided by otherworldly hands to deliver retribution from beyond the grave.

Directed by Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz, The Walking Dead is a more ominous and complicated horror show than some might expect from a film of its age. While many fright flicks of the time were taking their fair share of chances (be it the sexual subtext of Dracula’s Daughter or Mad Love‘s perverse streak), a certain formula had emerged that kept viewers at a distance from content that proved too foundation-rattling. Movies usually included romantic and comedic elements to undercut the terror of the main story, and The Walking Dead is no exception. Whenever Ellman’s haunted gaze isn’t emblazoned across the screen, we follow either Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill as Beaumont’s lovebird assistants or Ricardo Cortez presiding over the Warner Bros. lot’s best mobster character actors as our chief villains. But while it wouldn’t have taken The Walking Dead all that much effort to sit back and let the clichés do the talking, Curtiz is able to beckon the plot’s inherent sorrow to the surface and help make a lasting impression. This applies not only to Ellman but also to Hull and Churchill’s characters, who are pressured into silence after witnessing the incident for which Ellman is blamed and only speak up when it’s too late. There are even shades of gray to kindly old Dr. Beaumont, who becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of the afterlife upon realizing his patient knows things he couldn’t possibly have before dying. All of these pieces contribute to a pervading sadness that does wonders for the film’s eerie style and assures viewers that whatever scares are encountered here won’t be cheap.

But, of course, the very heart of The Walking Dead is Boris Karloff, playing a figure as tragic as Henry Frankenstein’s prized science project. Although early drafts of the script had Ellman taking on a more active and animalistic role when it came to the death scenes, revisions toned down his involvement, a decision that bestowed an unsettling power upon the film. Not even death can spare our hero from being exploited, for he’s powerless to prevent supernatural forces from using his body as a specter of death and haunting those who wronged him into bringing about their own demises. Karloff is absolutely heartbreaking in moments like these, but he can also be terrifying as all get-out while doing so little, as exemplified by a sequence in which his legendary stare seems to pierce the very souls of Cortez and his crew. Between Karloff’s performance and Hal Mohr’s foreboding photography, The Walking Dead almost effortlessly instills the audience with a sense of dread that feels inescapable, even when we cut to other characters for some down time. Sure, what Hull and Churchill are up to isn’t as interesting as Ellman’s plight, but they’re an appealing pair you come to feel for with the more responsibility they assume for his current condition. Similarly, where the villains (played by famous bit players like Barton MacLane and Paul Harvey) and their wise guy acts would come off as corny just about anywhere else, this film makes it endearing and, more importantly, knows to drop the sarcasm when Ellman comes calling for them.

The Walking Dead is a seldom-seen treasure, but it’s also a slow burn that doesn’t possess the urgency or excitement some of today’s horror hounds may be craving. Its imagery isn’t nearly as iconic as that of Karloff’s Universal outings, and the measured pacing has a good shot of making a few viewers tap out before the first body has dropped. But stick with it, and you might find The Walking Dead holds up just fine against many of the era’s more preeminent spookfests.